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Did Mexican President Lopez Obrador Take Drug Cartel Money?

A credible investigative journalist brings to light accusations that AMLO’s presidential campaign took narco bribes.

Mexico,City,May,24,2018,Andrés,Manuel,López,Obrador,,Presidential
<“https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/mexico-city-may-24-2018-manuel-1117734422”> Credit: Octavio Hoyos

ProPublica, a left-wing investigative-journalism organization best known for going after conservatives like Justice Clarence Thomas, has turned its media attention on Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). 

ProPublica’s Tim Golden, an experienced American reporter with years on the ground in Mexico and Latin America, has published an article that analyzes accusations that, in 2006, the Lopez Obrador presidential campaign accepted financial contributions from a Mexican drug cartel.  

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AMLO is predictably furious. His rise to the presidency was based on the carefully crafted political persona of a humble man crusading against corruption, a different kind of Mexican politician heroically dedicated to toppling the country’s rotten ruling class. For the Mexican president, ProPublica is committing political blasphemy of the highest order.    

ProPublica released its report under the title “Did Drug Traffickers Funnel Millions of Dollars to Mexican President López Obrador’s First Campaign?” Before publishing, Golden asked AMLO’s press office to respond to questions, but received no reply. The main thrust of Golden’s article is to recount the facts around a DEA investigation that suspected narco money was going to the 2006 Lopez Obrador presidential campaign. U.S. law enforcement investigations of the corruption of senior Mexican politicians are delicate and precarious affairs, and the DEA eventually closed the case.

But the circumstantial evidence and interviews were damning. The essence of the suspicions was that operatives of the Sinaloa Cartel, working through Nicolas Mollinedo, AMLO’s close political aide and personal driver, reportedly provided the Lopez Obrador presidential campaign some $2 million in exchange for a promise from the candidate that his administration would turn a blind eye to their illicit business activities.  

The Mexican president and his former aide categorically reject all charges of collusion with cartels, although AMLO’s defenders might concede their man has always opposed aggressive law enforcement against the cartels (his famous dictum of “hugs not bullets”). In denouncing the government’s drug wars, Lopez Obrador always advocated addressing the “root causes” that compel marginalized Mexicans to turn to crime to survive. 

It takes little imagination to see AMLO or his operatives rationalizing that accepting drug money for a “just cause” could be morally defensible. Such dirty money, once laundered, could serve the greater good, propelling an under-funded populist campaign to power against Mexico’s crooked and corrupt political establishment. For AMLO, theoretically, such a Faustian bargain could be justified as a way to curtail drug violence and transform the narcos, themselves victims of an unjust society. 

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Of course, no one will ever know because such matters are typically never clarified, particularly south of the border, but for veteran Mexico watchers, the allegations that AMLO’s political aide in fact took the narco bribes appear credible. To their credit, the ProPublica journalists, according to the managing editor, resurrected this story because they fear that growing Mexican corruption is a fundamental danger to both sides of the border.  

Golden’s report points to yet another example, if the charges are true, of classic narco-corruption poisoning the highest levels of Mexico’s political class. For Washington policymakers, this report is yet another wake-up call about Mexico’s widespread corruption sickness. It is a long-term threat that gnaws away at everything in the bilateral relationship.   

American leftists typically blame corruption on Mexico’s old ruling class. Their first instinct when considering accusations against Lopez Obrador is probably to ignore them because they fundamentally share so much of the Mexican president’s Weltanschauung. The Biden administration has made clear that its highest priorities towards Mexico, and Latin America in general, are based in finding common ground with regional leftist leaders and doing “justice” for perceived past gringo wrongdoing. 

Meanwhile, many on the American right, particularly libertarians and the business class, are so blinded by dollar signs, corporate growth, and expanded trade that they rarely consider how stoking up commerce in Mexico, a quasi-failed state, is making that country’s corruption-criminality axis even stronger. They are unwittingly feeding a cancer.

The latest Transparency International report on corruption perceptions, recently released, ranks Mexico 126 out of 180 countries globally, giving our southern neighbor the worst record of all states in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But the TI report fails to capture the full picture. Mexico’s miserable ranking downplays how the country’s corruption is also interwoven with a widespread system of criminal violence, or the credible threat of violence, that has blocked the modernization of the country’s law enforcement and judicial institutions. After decades of countermeasures, Mexico has no formula to get out of this corruption-criminality quicksand.  

In response to ProPublica’s report, el Presidente predictably unleashed his usual opprobrium, denouncing Golden as a DEA “mercenary” and demanding the U.S. government apologize. AMLO is vigorously defending his image as a unique populist crusader at war with his country’s endemic corruption. 

To be sure, AMLO’s reputation is certainly already tarnished among educated Mexicans, including many elites on the political left, but it robustly survives with much of his populist political base, the grassroots of his party Morena. The image of incorruptibility, so rare in Mexican politics, continues to undergird AMLO’s popularity. Thus, he must not only deny Golden’s charges, but destroy the journalist’s credibility. 

And AMLO will likely succeed, at least in Mexico with his allies. By all accounts, Lopez Obrador remains so politically popular that his hand-picked successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, is a shoo-in to follow him into the presidency after Mexico’s 2024 elections. Regrettably, Sheinbaum has no more idea on how to manage Mexico’s corruption-criminality axis than does AMLO. 

Official Washington, of course, has little to say about the ProPublica report. Since coming to office, the Biden administration, uniquely obsessed by its own unprecedented open-borderism, is incapable of calling the Mexican president to task over, well, anything at all. There are few foreign-policy examples of an American president so misplacing the national interest in managing an important bilateral relationship.

Covering the White House’s flank, most leftwing journalists refuse even to question Biden’s unusual passivity vis-à-vis his outspoken Mexican counterpart. Biden’s exaggerated submissiveness is partially intended, of course, as a contrast to the Trump administration’s hard-nosed Mexican diplomacy. 

It also reflects the American left’s deeply ingrained orthodoxy that Washington must continue to repent, even in the modern bilateral relationship, for historical U.S. misdeeds in dealing with our southern neighbor. Lopez Obrador plays these American guilt feelings like a master violinist. 

Perhaps, after three years of disastrous U.S.–Mexican security relations, just maybe, the leftward winds are changing. ProPublica has made a significant contribution on reconsidering Mexico policy through this exposé on Lopez Obrador. Golden’s report puts front and center the 109,000 American fentanyl deaths in 2022 and calls out the extraordinary ineptness of U.S.–Mexican security cooperation. He writes: 

The administration of President Joe Biden has been steadfast in its refusal to criticize López Obrador’s security policies, avoiding confrontation even when the Mexican president has publicly attacked U.S. law-enforcement agencies as mendacious and corrupt.

Golden points to Biden’s extraordinary diplomatic lameness:

After asserting repeatedly that Mexico had nothing to do with fentanyl, López Obrador has recently taken a few modest steps to renew anti-drug cooperation. His government, though, continues to ignore U.S. requests for the capture and extradition of major traffickers, while Washington officials portray the relationship in rosy terms. At the end of a meeting with López Obrador in November, Biden turned to him and said, “I couldn’t have a better partner than you.”

Biden treats no other foreign leader with such kid gloves. Even while offering his Mexican “partner” unprecedented open-border migration, President Biden is incapable of diplomatic horse-trading with AMLO that gains any significant security benefit in favor of the United States. For Biden and co., open-borderism compensates for the unconscionable excesses of past gringo presidents, from Polk to Wilson to Trump. 

That is why the ProPublica piece on AMLO’s shady past is so groundbreaking. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new awakening on the left to the dangerousness of the status quo, and how Lopez Obrador is part of the problem.

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